Escher certainly doesn’t make it easy for us, especially when it comes to the tricky subject of reflections and mirrors. Reflections within paintings, literally “paintings” within paintings, add another layer of meaning that is inherently ambiguous and paradoxical. Critics engage in endless debates that try to make sense of both the supposed three-dimensional reality and the two-dimensional nature of the canvas. No one loves a paradox more than Escher, and his Hand with Reflecting Sphere explores how a ball can encompass more information than a flat plane. In true Escher style, he presents the endless, mind-numbing implications of dimensions and reflections in a concise and convincing way.
Before the Mirror is uncharacteristic of Morisot both in style and subject matter. She almost never painted nudes, probably because it was relatively unheard of for women to become painters at the time, much less painters of nudes. Her brushwork is also much more loose and abstract than in her other work.
Vermeer combines light, texture, pattern, and perspective in The Music Lesson in an understated way that exemplifies his skill and meticulous care at involving all of these elements seamlessly. This might be the only mirror in Vermeer’s body of work, and it’s not surprising that he chooses to depict it as though it was just another painting with characteristic subtlety. Some critics say that there is an easel reflected in the mirror (though I can’t seem to find it), but, if that’s the case, it would certainly open up the scene to include another dimension rather than an isolated view.
It’s interesting to see how a slightly altered reflection can spark interpretations of modern alienation and social identity in an attempt to find symbolic reasons for the deliberate distortion of Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. Manet casually presents a slightly “off” version of reality that was unprecedented for the Impressionists, but no one has agreed to a distinct explanation. Perhaps it is enough to accept the play of reflections as simply a step away from the direct representation of reality into a more ambiguous one.